Anthony Bourdain Interview: Latino Kitchen Workers vs. French chefs, and More Food Talk

Originally published in The Tacoma News Tribune, Wednesday, November 3rd, 2004 12:01 AM (PST)

My colleagues in the food press like to paint Anthony Bourdain as the
Jack Kerouac of the kitchen, an articulate bad boy roaming the seamy
culinary underbelly.

What this caricature slights is Bourdain’s seriousness of purpose,
intelligence of vision and affection for food that is at once vulgar
and refined. A gastronomic Jean Genet, or Lou Reed, Lord of the Line
Cooks, would be more appropriate.

Bourdain catapulted from brash cook to celebrity chef four years ago
with the publication of his sex-drugs-cockroaches tell-all, “Kitchen
Confidential.” Since then, he’s written for The New Yorker and
traveled the world on the Food Network’s dime, eating and extolling
the virtues of all things tasty and disgusting, from sheep testicles
to monkey brains.

A recovering heroin addict and graduate of the Culinary Institute of
America, Bourdain is a well-regarded crime novelist and author of a
book about Typhoid Mary, the 19th-century cook suspected of
triggering a killer epidemic. He’s just published his first cookbook,
“Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes and
Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking.”

The recipes are collected from Les Halles, the New York City
brasserie where Bourdain has been executive chef since 1996. The
voice is pure Bourdain: Swaggering and unflinching, he insults and
cajoles readers while giving them a no-nonsense field manual of
kitchen techniques and cooking insights.

Bourdain will be in Seattle on Monday to participate in the
Washington Wine Commission’s Cooks & Books Visiting Chef’s Series. I
spoke with Bourdain from his Manhattan home. What follows is a
bouillabaisse of a conversation about cookbook writing, the cult of
celebrity chefs and the virtues of immigrant kitchen labor.

Read any good cookbooks lately?

I think “The French Laundry Cookbook” was terrific. It was beautiful,
yet interesting writing. It wasn’t nonsensical musings. It wasn’t BS.
Fergus Henderson’s “The Whole Beast,” it’s very much his voice, it’s
him talking to you. As long as the chef doesn’t just slap his name on
the cover and put in some pretty pictures and have a ghostwriter do
everything else, it’s of interest to me.

You’re referring to gushy food memoirs?

I think you’re doing a reader a disservice if you try to make them
believe that since infancy you’ve been dreaming of white truffles,
white asparagus. That’s just such nonsense. So few chefs actually
came to the business like that.

Your cookbook is pretty nuts and bolts – or hooves and snouts – with
an emphasis on basic techniques and “low-on-the-hog” ingredients.

I think the whole idea of cocktail-table food porn is something I
very much did not want to do. I wanted my book to be useful, to have
food spilled on it, to quickly become an old friend in the kitchen. I
wanted it to have my voice. I wanted it to sound like me, the way
I’ve talked to generations of cooks over the years. I don’t think you
can do that by writing from on high. A lot of that writing has no
relation to reality. It’s hard to believe that the chef actually
sounds like that when you’re talking to him over a few beers.

So there’s too much preciousness about food?

I think yes. I think food should be approachable and fun, and you
should feel comfortable mopping your sauce with bread. It is only
food at the end of the day. Snobbery, pretentiousness, squeamishness,
contempt, these are terrible things. Overwriting, over-weaning
philosophy or orthodoxy – these are anti-food and anti-human
instincts. The sooner you get rid of that, the better.

How do you feel about food safety worries?

I think both sides are dangerous. This notion that the government
owes you absolute purity is a dangerous one to food. People shouldn’t
be afraid of bacteria; they shouldn’t be afraid of food. By the same
token, they should not see food as coming from some sort of rarefied
environment populated only by artists. Most of the great dishes of
the world have come out of less-than-sterile environments.

So you don’t get turned off by hole-in-the-wall joints that serve
good food but don’t pay attention to hygiene?

If a restaurant’s filled with happy-looking people and the food looks
good, I’m eating it. I’m not very concerned about “is the kitchen as
clean as McDonald’s?” What’s the cleanest restaurant in America? It’s
probably McDonald’s. It’s clean. It’s germ-free. And it’s completely
devoid of pleasure.

What about more upscale restaurants?

If you’re charging me $28 a plate, I expect a certain pride, I expect
certain standards right through the operation. If you don’t care
enough to clean your bathroom and you’re charging me $28, that is a
little dismaying. But my expectations change when we’re talking about
a little place that serves pho or tacos. Hey, if the tacos are good
and the place is packed and they’re packed with the right people,
which is to say Mexicans or Vietnamese, then I have a reasonably good
expectation that I’m gonna have a good meal.

Who’s more indispensable during the Saturday night dinner rush – the French chef or the Mexican dishwasher?

The dishwasher. We can make it through the night without the chef. If
the dishwasher doesn’t show up, we’re doomed. And chances are the
Mexican dishwasher will end up staying a much longer time than the
French chef and end up carrying the entire weight of the kitchen as
sous chef eventually.

Have Latino immigrant workers changed kitchen culture?

Only for the better. It’s a character issue. They by and large come
to the country with little or no professional training. But they come
from a food-centric culture where food is important to them, it’s
valued and enjoyed. And they’re coming from one culture to another,
and they see America where – rightly – if you work hard you will gain
the American dream, whereas Americans often tend to see success as a

So why don’t we see more Latinos on cooking shows?

Every day that goes by that we don’t have one is a shameful one. It
is despicable, for instance, that when you look out into the audience
at the James Beard awards how few Latino faces you see in an industry
that is enormously reliant on Mexican and Latino labor. It’s
grotesque to me that that isn’t acknowledged every day.

Do diners know or appreciate who’s really doing the work in most kitchens?

Oh, no. There’s an incredible hypocrisy and willful blindness on the
issue. How can anyone complain about illegal Mexican labor? Try to
find an American dishwasher. It’s ridiculous. As long as Americans
are not willing to be seen working as dishwashers or prep cooks or
night clean-up, as long as they see that as beneath them, it’s
ludicrous to deny the value, the character and importance of the
Latino workforce. As I see it, we are all chefs, cooks and
dishwashers, we are all the same people. We are all the back-stairs
help in the service industry. I don’t see myself as any better or
more important than a Mexican dishwasher. In fact, I’m in many ways
less important.

Do restaurants exploit immigrant labor?

What has changed in my lifetime is that the days of the underpaid
illegal immigrant restaurant workers are largely over. It doesn’t
matter who you are, you’re getting paid the same lousy wages, but at
least they’re within legal range – 7, 8, 9 dollars an hour. I think
that anyone who’s paying an illegal Mexican under the legal wage
should be shot, or at least flogged publicly.

Besides kitchen Spanish, what have you learned from Mexican dishwashers?

I just feel privileged to work with these guys. They have the
strength of character and a sense of humor and an understanding of
the way the world works that a lot of my peers don’t.

When is your next crime novel coming out?

I don’t know, but I intend to write them every two years as personal
therapy. It’s nice to disappear into an alternate universe where
people solve their problems with guns and blunt objects, which is
something we can’t really do in the restaurant.

Do celebrity chefs have groupies?

Yeah. It’s a pretty disturbing group. I mean, sure, hey, it’s nice to
be loved, but when somebody likes you because you’re on television,
you’re talking about Kathy Bates in “Misery.” You’re not talking
about somebody you’re going to develop a meaningful relationship
with. It’s flattering, but it’s a little disturbing.

Has the cult of celebrity chefdom worn out its welcome or peaked?

I hope not. I think it’s a good thing. It’s good for the world. I may
not like Emeril’s show, but I think the world is a better place for
him having been in it. He runs good restaurants. He came up the hard
way from the old school. Because of him we probably have a wider
selection of food in our supermarkets, people are eating marginally
better and maybe even cooking marginally better. Who better than
chefs? We do something useful. We feed people. We nurture them. We
inspire others to cook better and eat better. In a fast-food culture,
that’s a good thing.

How do you feel about the F-word – foodie?

For lack of a better word, I can live with it. Sure. Why not?

Boeuf Bourguignon
Yield: 6 servings

2 pounds beef shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup olive oil
4 onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup Burgundy
6 carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 garlic clove
Bouquet garni (1 sprig flat-leaf parsley, 2 sprigs fresh thyme and 1
bay leaf tied together with string or bundled in cheesecloth)
Salt and pepper
Water (amount depends on size of pot)
A little chopped flat-leaf parsley

Season meat with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or large,
heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil over high heat until it is almost
smoking. Working in batches, sear the meat on all sides until well
browned. Set aside. Add onions to the pot. Lower the heat to
medium-high and sauté until the onions are soft and golden brown,
about 10 minutes. Sprinkle flour over onions and continue to cook for
5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add wine, and scrape anything that
sticks from the bottom of the pot. Bring mixture to a boil. Return
the meat to the pots, and add carrots, garlic and bouquet garni. Add
just enough water so that the liquid covers the meat by one-third –
meaning you want a ratio of 3 parts liquid to 2 parts meat. Bring to
a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and let cook for about 2 hours, or
until the meat is tender and breaks apart with a fork. Check stew
every 15-20 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pot to make sure the
meat does not stick. Skim off any foam or oil that collects on the
surface. When done, remove and discard the bouquet garni, add chopped
parsley to the pot and serve.

Source: “Les Halles Cookbook” by Anthony Bourdain

Posted in Chefs, Food Business People, Industry Issues

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